The government is right to be concerned about education. When Blair came to power in 1997 he assured the country that Labour’s watchword would be ‘education, education, education’. The deeply entrenched problems in UK schools would be taken in hand, schools would be adequately funded, standards would rise, parents would at last be relieved of their anxieties.
A little over a decade later that optimism now sounds as hollow as other promises the Government made at the time. The reality is that a ‘virus’ has entered the education system whose effects for society as a whole are as serious as the current MRSA infestations for our hospitals. Bad reports keep coming - that children are being unduly pressured as a result of incessant testing; that many leave school with low standards of reading and writing, etc. Last year 110 child experts - teachers, psychologists, children’s authors and academics - took the unprecedented step of publishing an open letter calling on the Government to act ‘to prevent the death of childhood’.
Blair’s well-intentioned millions were in fact poured down the drain. Why? The virus in question passes far beyond the educational sphere. It is neither physical nor financial but spiritual and moral and is as evident in adult society as in schools. The crisis in the latter merely reflects the larger crisis.
Take family issues for example. A report last year showed Britain to be the worst place out of 21 European countries for a child to grow up in. This is partly because the UK divorce rate, single parent quotient, abortion numbers and STD statistics are amongst the highest in Europe. In this respect children of all ages are the tragic fallout of a grubby, celebrity-saturated society. What truly important, widely recognizable differences, for example, distinguish teenagers and adults today? If anything it seems as if adolescence, with its typical immaturity and irresponsibility, now serves as a template for contemporary adulthood: which may explain the popularity of BBC 2’s most successful programme, ‘Top Gear’, currently seen by 350 million viewers worldwide including men, women and children. “The presenters just muck about,” a news article says, “Their attitude to the real world is just ‘Oh, for God’s sake!’… Everyone wishes they could have that attitude...unlike any other show on British TV ‘Top Gear’ just doesn’t give a damn.” It typifies the current attitude: ‘You’re only here once so you may as well have a good time.’
Shouldn’t we be alarmed? A lethal virus has become endemic? Yet resignation and cynicism simply enlarge to fill the vacuum - “Oh for God’s sake.... we’ll all get used to the new situation in the end, as long as there are enough of us in it together and no one is stopping us - it’s the way life is.” True, only too true, and very ominous! But ominous most of all for the nation’s children whose common experience now reflects various combinations of betrayed relationships, broken families, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, spiralling debt, alcohol/drug dependency, knifings, shootings, boredom, incoherence, futility and not infrequently depression.
Child care reflects the same malaise. Vast numbers of children may now be in child care largely due to an uncritical acceptance of consumerist values and motivations. Rather than ask the tough questions, “Why work so hard? How much money is enough and enough for what?”, children are ‘farmed out’ to day nurseries. The chimera of keeping up with the culture invades and robs them of genuine human richness.
And when at the close of every day the family reconvenes, hungry and emotionally weary, junk food is readily to hand (‘to make life simpler’) and junk culture endlessly and obligingly available via the box and video games (‘to keep us entertained’). No need for conversation: so old-fashioned. Meanwhile, all unseen but all too obvious as Marshall McLuhan predicted, ‘junk culture’ poisons the minds of those who, though children today, are about to shape the future. “…the medium creates an environment that is indelible and lethal…” Yet it serves our convenience. So with almost audible sighs of relief we allow it to keep our children quiet – even though increasingly dissatisfied and dysfunctional!
Frequently bereft of conversation and genuine guidance, cooped up in school buildings or commuted around the country from a young age, many enduring educational misery at failing schools, subliminally corrupted by trashy celebrity values as much in good schools as in bad, is it any wonder our children are the unhappiest in Europe?
What they long for, of course, is the warmth and security of a loving family and a sense of purpose and confidence about life’s meaning. Yet this is the very thing a god-less universe and those influenced by such a view cannot deliver. For if the universe has come by chance and human beings are at base just animals and if morals are just ‘memes’ etc. etc.- as Dr. Dawkins and his colleagues assiduously remind us - why give a damn!? Why not take up with the ‘Top Gear’ gang and lustily echo their ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE’ refrain?
But isn’t it interesting that cynicism finds it necessary to use the divine name at all. Why is this? Because God is inescapable, much as Christmas is. The festive season comes and goes each year and echoes repeatedly what this culture once believed, namely, that God really did come to earth as a human being. But why bother? Isn’t god an empty word and Christmas an empty symbol? Where then do we look to find the roots of our current educational malaise, to the children? No! The ultimate virus in western education is neither increased immigration nor inadequate funding, though these do play a part. It is the incoherence and cynicism which inevitably flow from a Christ-less, God-less universe.
Elaine Cooper and Ranald Macaulay